Substitutes: The 'Other' Teacher Shortage

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On a "bad day" recently in the San Diego school district, 50 classrooms were without teachers.

Nearly 450 of the district's 6,000 teachers were absent, but only 400 substitute teachers were available to fill the vacancies, explained George Russell, assistant superintendent for the district's personnel-service division.

Some students whose teachers were absent never got a teacher--school aides stayed with them; some students joined other classes, doubling their already large size; and others spent the day with school administrators, taking them away from their duties at the school or district office.

"This winter was the worst," Mr. Russell said. "Almost every week we had a shortage of 20 to 50 substitute teachers."

Coming Crisis

School officials in other large school systems and in rural districts across the country, particularly in the eight states that require substitutes to be certified teachers, also report that their schools are experiencing shortages of substitutes this year.

And the current substitute shortage is just the "tip of the iceberg," according to educators and experts who predict dire consequences if the issue is not addressed by policymakers soon.

The problem, they report, is a complicated one, inextricably intertwined with the troubles school districts face in light of current and predicted shortages in the regular teaching force, teacher absenteeism, and the educational reform movement that is sweeping the country at the state level.

It is also a problem that educators fear will not be addressed until it reaches crisis proportions, despite the high educational and economic costs of an inadequate substitute-teaching force.

Moreover, recent interviews with school officials and researchers across the country confirm that little reliable information exists about--and little attention is being paid to--substitutes as an aspect of the education system that already annually consumes up to several billion dollars, occupies thousands of administrative hours, and directly affects the classroom experience of millions of students at all levels.

'The Problem is On Us'

"It doesn't take much vision to realize the problem is on us, and if not on us, it's just around the corner," said Ivan Settles, an education lecturer and the director of the placement center at the University of Washington, Seattle. "The pool of substitutes is going to get smaller and smaller--as we've already seen in strategic areas like mathematics, science, languages, bilingual education, vocational education, and special education--until it becomes critical."

In a report issued last August, Linda Darling-Hammond, a researcher for the Rand Corporation's Washington, D.C., office, identified a number of trends that will contribute to a severe shortage of teachers in the public schools, such as a sharp drop in the number of education majors over the past decade, projections of surges in elementary-school enrollments in each year through31992, and a decline in the academic ability of teaching candidates. (See Education Week, Aug 22, 1984.)

"Common sense" suggests that a shortage of substitute teachers will occur concurrently "for many of the same reasons," Ms. Darling-Hammond said in a recent interview.

Economic Costs

In school districts already experiencing substitute-teacher shortages, the increasing cost of substitute programs has become a major concern of administrators.

This school year, the New York City Public Schools will spend "roughly" $38 million to fill the 3,000 classrooms left vacant each school day by teacher absences, according to James Healy, administrator of the office of revenue and claims and the director of the school system's new "substitute-teacher registry."

That figure, he said, represents only the cost of salaries for the substitutes and does not include the additional "hidden costs" of filling vacancies, such as administrative time, insurance, and telephone bills.

But while 3,000 classrooms need teachers each day, the substitute-teacher shortage is so acute that the district--even with a new centralized, computerized system for placing substitutes--is only able to fill 2,000 of the vacancies. Administrators depend on the district's 65,000 regular teachers to give up their preparation periods to fill the other 1,000 classrooms.

Because the cost of hiring regular teachers to fill in for an absent teacher is about $83 per day and the cost of hiring a substitute is $63 per day, the substitute-teacher shortage will cost the school system about $3.7 million this year, Mr. Healy estimated.

Competition for Substitutes

In the fiscal year 1983, the Los Angeles Unified School District spent $18.5 million--2.7 percent of its total teacher-salary budget--on "day-to-day" substitutes. This fiscal year, the district budgeted $25 million for substitute teachers--3.2 percent of its budget for teacher salaries.

That increase, according to Kathleen Price, an administrative consultant in the district's personnel division, is due primarily to an increase in the daily pay rate for substitutes, which jumped from $60 in 1983 to $80 this school year under the collective-bargaining agreement negotiated last year by United Teachers-Los Angeles, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

On any given day, the district is short 50 to 150 substitute teachers, so the pay rate had to increase to attract more substitutes, said Ms. Price, adding that the Los Angeles school district is "competing for substitute teachers with a number of other districts."

According to Ms. Price, increasing teacher absenteeism is not causing the empty classrooms; the rate actually has dropped a few percentage points in recent years. The problem, she said, is that there simply are not enough qualified substitute teachers available in the area.

California Out Front

The situation in California is probably the best example of how the teacher shortage and the excellence movement have combined, and could combine in other states, to create a substitute-teacher crisis, according to California educators.

Because California is a "high-growth" state, the demographic changes that experts predict will contribute to a nationwide teacher shortage already are occurring there.

In addition, state policymakers, led by Bill Honig, superintendent of public instruction, have made an effort to keep the state in the forefront of the school-reform movement.

One of the state's initial reform ef-forts--the requirement that all prospective teachers, including substitutes, pass the California Basic Educational Skills Test of mathematics and writing--has lowered the number of available substitute teachers dramatically since it became effective two years ago, school administrators report.

According to state education officials, about 30 percent of those who take the test fail it the first time and 36 percent of those taking the test to qualify as substitute teachers fail.

Although several school districts have petitioned the department and the state legislature to ease the requirements for substitutes, Mr. Honig said last week that he did not expect the standards to be lowered.

"I am not in favor of that and the legislature is not in favor of that," he said.

Mr. Honig added that "there are solutions" to the problem, such as paying substitutes more, hiring a permanent substitute core force, and strong recruiting programs.

"The districts will figure it out," he said.

'Losing Battle'

Some supervisors of substitute teachers say the California experience makes them concerned about the impact the reform efforts of other state and local governments could have on their programs.

If the standards for substitute teachers were raised in Utah and substitutes were required to have up-to-date certification, it would cut the district's substitute pool in half, said Elaine Johnson, the supervisor of substitute teachers in Salt Lake City.

And certification officers in some states without any requirements for substitutes say it would be a "losing battle" to set high standards for substitute teachers. "Especially in the rural areas," said an officer at the Oklahoma Department of Education, "qualified people just aren't available."

In many areas, minimum standards for substitute teachers are nonexistent; 22 states have no minimum requirements and an additional 12 states allow substitutes to teach without a college degree. (See related table on page 21.)

Lower Standards Anticipated

Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington State require the same standards for substitutes as for regular teachers. School officials in those states say that they are "extremely concerned" about the impact the predicted teacher shortage will have on their schools' ability to find enough substitutes that meet the qualifications required by state law.

In Denver, the number of substitute teachers on the school district's active roster dropped from 1,000 to 700 between last school year and this school year, according to Darold Bobier, management-relations specialist in the district's personnel office.

"This thing has really got on us in a hurry," he said, "and we know it is only the tip of the iceberg of the teacher shortage."

Last month, Mr. Bobier appeared before the Colorado Board of Education to request its support in encouraging the legislature to ease the requirement that substitutes teach no more than 89 days in a school year. "It may also get to a point where we have to accept 'lesser than,' as other states have done," he said.

Mr. Settles in Washington said he was "quite sure" the state would need to develop an emergency-certification program for substitute teachers within the next few years.

Educational Costs

Any lowering of standards for the substitute-teaching force is "frightening," some educators say, because the standards are already low and the reputation of substitutes in the education community is already poor.

A study designed to measure the quality of classroom instruction, conducted in 1971 by the Institute of Administrative Research at Teachers College, Columbia University, found that substitute teachers were "the least effective [instructors] observed, below even student teachers and teacher aides."

Research conducted by the Educational Research Service, a nonprofit research organization supported by administrators' groups, also indicates that nearly half of all school districts do not require substitute teachers to hold the same minimum academic degree and teacher certfication required of regular teachers.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the educational cost of using a substitute teacher for an extended period is high.

"No matter how many instructions or materials a teacher leaves for a substitute teacher, it is impossible to derive the same quality of program with the substitute," said Robert Beaumont, instructionalel35lstaffing director of the Broward (Fla.) County School District.

"Any time the regular teachers are out, there is some loss of instruction," Mr. Russell in San Diego agreed.

Several administrators also said it is "fairly common," particularly in states and districts without mandated standards for substitute teachers, for substitute teachers to teach outside of their subject area.

"One or two days of that is probably all right," said Mr. Settles, "but for an extended period it can have a devastating effect on educational quality."

And even in states like California, where there is "little flexibility" in assigning substitutes outside of their subject areas, the district "has to fudge a bit" in filling absences for teachers in high-shortage fields, Mr. Russell said.

Issue of Absenteeism

Many school administrators say teacher absenteeism, although it is an issue in any discussion of substitute-teaching programs, is not a key factor in today's shortage.

During the shortage in Los Angeles, absentee rates actually have decreased; Denver school officials report "insignificant" increases; and Mr. Russell said that "a lot of teachers in San Diego come to school when they probably ought to stay home."

A 1981 survey of 470 school districts conducted by ers found that during the 1978-79 school year teachers averaged eight paid absences.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average daily absenteeism rate for full-time wage-earners in 1980, the most recent year for which statistics are available, was 6.1 percent. According to the ers survey, an average of 4.3 percent of a district's teachers were absent each day during in 1978-79.

The ers survey, which provides the most recent data available on teacher absenteeism, also found6higher absentee rates in large, urban districts; among elementary-school teachers; and in districts where teachers are not required to speak directly to an administrator about an absence.

Policy Impact Debated

According to some experts, lenient sick-leave policies are a contributing factor in the growth of teacher absenteeism, and thus of the need for a large substitute work force.

Most school districts grant teachers between 10 and 12 paid leave days per year, according to union officials.

"Research shows a direct correlation between the number of leave days allowed and the absentee rate," said Arch S. Brown, executive director of the American Association of School Personnel Administrators. "The greater the numbers of days allowed, the higher the absentee rate," he said.

But some educators question the validity of such data.

In Pennsylvania, for example, nearly 20 years ago the legislature required school districts to give teachers 10 sick days each school year. Although the number of days allowed has remained constant over the years, a study of approximately 25 percent of Pennsylvania's school districts by the state's school-boards association found a 44-percent increase in teacher absenteeism between 1968-69 and 1977-78.

Most observers agree that although the problem of teacher absenteeism varies from district to district, the increases some districts have experienced in recent years, particularly in large urban areas, are due to "stress and burnout."

"If teachers didn't take a day off here and there they'd have to check themselves into an asylum," said William Pearce, a substitute teacher in the Seattle School District and president of the National Education Association's Substitute Teacher Caucus. The caucus is a small group of substitute teachers who have for the past few years worked within the 1.7-million-member association to make union officials more aware of the special needs of substitutes.

Low Status of Substitutes

For their part, substitutes argue that such endemic problems of the teaching profession--including its declining status--are multiplied several times for them. They "get no respect," on the local, state, or national level, said Mr. Pearce.

"If teachers are second-class citizens, we are fourth- or fifth-class citizens," he said.

If you ask substitute teachers about "professional development," most of them will laugh, Mr. Pearce said. And if you want to talk about low pay, he said, ask a substitute teacher.

In Seattle, the going rate for a substitute teacher is $67 a day, slightly more than half the average salary a regular teacher is paid. And for a substitute, that is a good wage, he said.

"We have a lot of school districts in the United States that don't even pay half that much," he said, "and there are places that don't even pay minimum wage."

"One thing that gets the substitute in Seattle irritated," he added "is that we frequently supervise teacher aides, paraprofessionals, who get more money than we do."

The average minimum daily pay rate for substitute teachers in 1983-84 was $38.13, according to an ers survey. The average maximum scheduled daily pay rate for substitutes during that school year was $44.37.

During the same school year, the average daily wage for teachers was about $122, according to figures compiled by the nea

No Benefits

Another survey conducted by the ers in 1976 also indicates that substitute teachers rarely receive benefits; 74.6 percent of the 488 school systems surveyed provided no fringe benefits to their substitute teachers. That survey, "Practices and Procedures in the Use of Substitute Teachers," is the only comprehensive study on the topic of substitute teaching that has been conducted, experts say.

"There is just very little research out there on substitute teachers, it's an area that has been very neglected," said James C. King, a professor of education at the University of Akron who has supervised various university research projects on substitute teachers.

Lack of Information

The lack of information is another manifestation of the low status of substitute teachers, Mr. King said.

The 1976 ers research puts the number of substitute teachers on call in U.S. school districts at 736,696, but today no one seems to know how many such teachers there are.

Spokesmen at both the nea and the aft say that their organizations do not gather information on the number of substitute teachers and that they do not know how many of their own members are substitutes.

"They don't even know how many of us are paying dues," Mr. Pearce said. "Isn't that pathetic?"

Neglected by Unions

Both unions have been slow to organize substitutes, according to Stanley Collins, a substitute in Eugene, Ore., and member of the nea Substitute Teacher Caucus.

"They don't know how to recruit outside of school buildings," Mr. Collins said, "and until they change their recruiting methods to accommodate substitutes, substitute teachers will be underrepresented."

Mr. Pearce, however, offered a different reason for the unions' neglect.

"There are members who feel that if substitutes were organized, it would take the spotlight away from them and the services they receive would be diluted," he said.

That attitude, he speculated, may be a throwback to the days when teachers were required to pay substitutes themselves. Any attempt to increase the salaries of substitute teachers would not have been in the interest of the regular teaching force, he explained.

John Dunlop, manager of program development for the nea, said he is not aware of any affiliate that is unwilling to represent substitute teachers.

"In fact," he said, "we encourage our locals to seek out every potential member and offer them membership."

The problem with organizing substitute teachers, he suggested, is the "transitory" nature of their work.

"A union operates on a community of interests and the process of developing those interests involves face-to-face contact with your colleagues--and that contact with substitutes is minimal," he said.

Because of the organizing problems unions face in recruiting substitutes, those who want to be represented by an nea affiliate probably will have to seek that representation, Mr. Dunlop said.

The ers research in 1976 revealed that substitutes in 95.3 percent of school districts were not covered by the collective-bargaining agreement.

Mr. Dunlop said he did not think that number had "changed significantly" during the past nine years.

Low Expectations

Substitute teachers are also held in low regard because administrators, and to a lesser extent the teachers being replaced, do not expect them to do any real teaching, Mr. Collins said.

In a 1970 survey of junior-high-school principals in Sacramento, Calif., 44 percent said substitute teachers "do little more than babysit."

Such low expectations of administrators and teachers are evident to students, who delight in taking advantage of "the sub."

Don C. McGlothlin, a substitute teacher in Wheeling, Ill., and a retired school administrator, said he had one student tell him his regular teacher "never counts what a substitute does. She'll either go over what we've covered today again, or she won't count it at all."

Every substitute teacher also has his or her share of "horror stories," Mr. Collins said--everything from waste-can fires to class mutinies to students who fake epileptic seizures.

Even a cursory search of the available literature on substitute teachers is revealing: the most commonly discussed topic is how to avoid disaster. Titles include "Survival Kit for Substitutes," "10 Ways to Prevent Classroom Chaos," and "Save Your Sub's Sanity."

Few 'Professionals'

In light of the salaries and working conditions of substitute teachers, it is the rare individual who actually wants to be a "professional" substitute, educators say.

In San Diego, for example, Mr. Russell reports that most of the 400 people on his substitute roster "are looking to get hired on as regular teachers" and thus use the position as a way to "get a foot in the door."

Because of that, he said, teacher shortages, such as those occurring in school districts throughout California, could wipe out most of a district's substitute-teaching force in one year.

"We're looking at hiring 400 or 500 new teachers for the next school year, so you can see what it would do to our substitute pool," he said.

Another concern for the schools, he added, is that "a commitment to hiring the best teachers out of the substitute pool leaves people who aren't the best." Thus, he explained, schools are left with the dilemma of using fewer, less-qualified people to do more substitute teaching.


The problems associated with substitute-teacher programs, particularly in light of impending shortages, has led educators in some school districts to rethink the traditional pattern.

San Diego officials are "looking at" a program of permanent substitute teachers. Mr. Russell said he has proposed hiring a number of teachers, who would receive benefits and a salary in line with that of the regular teaching force, to do nothing but substitute-teach.

The nea recommends that states adopt the same standards for substitutes as for regular teachers. According to the 1983-84 nea Handbook, the union "encourages both the education community and the public to recognize the singular and specific function that the substitute teacher performs in the maintenance and continuity of daily education."

The lack of required standards creates a "disincentive" for school districts to hire highly qualified substitutes, according to union officials.

"It's an economic issue," Mr. Pearce in Seattle maintained. "If districts can hire college students, or even high-school graduates, at a lower rates, they are going to do that."

Streamlined Administration

School officials in New York City have instituted a centrally operated computer system that eliminates a lot of the administrative expense--about $2.5 million this year--out of the school system's substitute-teacher program.

The Bureau of Per Diem Operations, or the "substitute-teacher registry," receives calls 24 hours a day from teachers who will be absent from school for illness or other reasons. Staff members of the registry then match the openings with substitute teachers selected from among the 2,000 substitutes on the computer files.

Based on absences projected for individual schools, the registry can assign about half of the substitutes in advance, according to Mr. Healy.

The efficiency of the registry has increased the school system's ability to provide substitute teachers by about 20 percent, according to school officials.

Mr. Healy said the computer system has been paired with an aggressive and "creative" recruiting campaign that resulted in the hiring of about 150 New York City actors to substitute teach this year.

Substitute teachers themselves have turned to unionization as a means of forcing school officials to take them more seriously.

Substitute Strikes

In Chicago, for example, a group of 40 substitutes who had not received a pay increase since 1969 gathered in 1975 at a North Side bowling alley to create Substitutes United for Better Schools (subs).

Since then, the group has published an aggressive monthly newspaper called Substance and has managed to be a "thorn in the hide" of Chicago Public Schools administrators and leaders of the aft-affiliated Chicago Teachers Union, according to George Schmidt, a self-styled "radical" substitute who founded subs.

The group, which now has more than 200 members, has organized a number of substitute-teacher strikes over the years and has been instrumental in improving their salaries and benefits, Mr. Schmidt said.

Officials of the Bridgewater-Raritan (N.J.) Substitute Educators' Association also report positive results after forming a substitutes' union. The first two-year contract they negotiated resulted in salary increases, an allowance for binding arbitration, assignment by request, two and a half days of inservice training with pay, a half-day's pay if an assignment is canceled by the administration, and additional pay for additional class coverage beyond the schedule of the regular teachers.

Other substitute teachers, such as Mr. Collins and Mr. Pearce, work within the established teachers' unions to build substitute membership and develop a substitute constituency and collective-bargaining units for substitutes.


But some educators see using substitute teachers as little as possible, or not using them at all, as preferable to trying to solve the work-force problems.

In Syosset (N.Y.) High School, for example, district officials have instituted an enrichment program in which students and a full-time coordinator arrange and publicize a dai-ly schedule of events, such as plays, films, and chess instruction, to act as a replacement for substitute teachers. Teachers have the option of sending their students to the scheduled events or using a substitute. Substitute teachers must be used if a teacher is absent for more than three days.

Teacher-Attendance Policies

Other administrators suggest that school districts institute tough teacher-attendance policies in order to reduce the number of days substitutes are needed.

Neal C. Nickerson, a professor of education at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, suggested that one way to reduce teacher absenteeism may be to offer teachers "unlimited" sick days. The preliminary results of research he is supervising at the university seem to indicate, he said, that teachers will take more sick days if a certain number are provided in their contract than unlimited sick leave is allowed.

Cash Bonus

Although Broward County is just beginning to experience a shortage of substitute teachers, the district negotiated a contract agreement with its teachers two years ago "to encourage and reward employees who assist in maintaining continuity of classroom instruction through good job attendance."

The agreement allows teachers who do not use their sick leave to take cash, an amount equal to 80 percent of their daily pay rate, for that time at the end of the school year.

According to school officials, the program has reduced the number of teacher absences in Broward County.

Vol. 04, Issue 28

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